Oh, the bodies that had bucked and heaved beneath the querying touch of his instruments. The lips stretched wide in voiceless alarm, knowing that their physical forms were violated to the point of pain, yet too numbed by chemicals to truly feel it.
After all, there was knowledge to be gleaned even from those society had chosen to ignore. The myriad ways in which their bodies reacted to misfortune, the functions that could be altered or arrested before they succumbed to death.
If only he could interrogate her flesh, it would be obvious. If he could trace the lines of her body with a scalpel, the truth would be easily discovered. But she was so small in the grip of the restraints, and the wrong method of physical enquiry would be so quick to break her. For the sake of her form and future, he had to be so careful.
Fixing the hooks to her arms, threading the wires between her fingers. Testing and measuring the gentle pulse of her heart.
In every way that he could determine, a child. Yet the damnable 'rider', as it referred to itself, was quick to dismiss that as an error in the methods of measurement used.
“There are instruments,” it had informed him with its typical surety, “Which can reveal the presence of a rider in their host. The visual symptoms are not always so obvious, and vary between members of my kind.”
Perhaps he should have been encouraged by the information that it was so quick to divulge. In light of its previous boasting, however, he could not help but suspect that he was being humoured again. Toyed with, or worse. If it had anything to fear from his efforts, after all, then why would it remain so maddeningly cooperative? Why did it lie so still with straps constricted over wrists and ankles?
Regarding him with the eternal steadiness of those eyes, as though considering and grading the means by which he sought to learn its secrets. As days passed, he had become more adept at ignoring that attention, but there were still times when it managed to crawl into his awareness and harry his focus. When the nights were dragging long and reference papers blurred before his gaze, when the steady ingestion of stimulants was no longer enough to sustain him.
When he was faced with the prospect of giving up until morning, of trying to sleep while his daughter continued to share space with that thing. His body had to relent in the end, falling into the rest that it needed so badly, but the nightmares hovered like carrion fowl in waiting.
Cruel subconscious visions and midnight hypotheticals. What would happen if the creature chose to leave with Andrea in tow, or if his efforts in separating them were not sufficiently careful. Loss and darkness, the way it would feel to stand over another grave.
The thoughts had almost taken him in that moment, and he was standing motionless. Blinking down at the counter and its vast assortment of tools, failing to remember which he'd intended to claim.
Sleep. He needed sleep, but every time he was selfish enough to take it, she suffered in the intruder's company for additional hours. If she could not rest at ease, then how could he justify the same luxury for himself?
“I told you,” the monster chided him from behind. “The alternating circuit is powerful, but not safe. If you made the alterations I described, you would only lose-”
“Do you think I believe a word that leaves your lips?” He had been given time to grow accustomed to its voice as well, the bold and certain way in which it stated its opinions. So easy to believe, or at least to doubt the contrary conclusions that he'd chosen to hold. In the end, his best defence was to keep it silent as often as possible. “Rethreading the circuit would decrease efficiency by no less than twenty percent. Certainly, it would be more comfortable for you – is this your way of begging for relief?”
Not once had he heard the creature laugh, but in the spaces of silence which often occupied their conversations, he could imagine how it might sound. Hollow and brutally cold, like the rest – was it chuckling in the depths of the mind it had borrowed, triumphant at how it had once again forced him to exhaustion?
If so, its exultation was well-concealed. “This is comfortable,” it assured him. A backward glance showed that it had not moved by a centimetre, still bound to the steep angle of that chair and crowded with the probing points of medical needles. Inserted with all of the caution and care that he could manage, of course, but not a position that anyone could call comfortable. “With all the work that you've accomplished here, I just thought you might have an interest in not setting your laboratory on fire.”
Did it think him so careless, so simple? Turning back to it with fists clenched again, thoughts drowning in the ebb and flow of the heartbeat that crowded his skull. He'd long since lost track of the hours that had passed between them, and without food or slumber, he felt as hollow as the true form that it had revealed before taking possession of poor Andrea. Incapable of the rage that he should have brought to bear against its assumption.
Still he tried, if only to deny it the satisfaction of knowing it had once again fatigued him. “Everything in this room is carefully monitored,” he reminded it. “Really, do you think that I've never considered the risk? What do you take me for?”
That quick, bitter smile was playing across its lips again, banished before it could reach its full realization. No matter – its echoes rang clear in the creature's answering tone.
“Answering that,” it informed him, “Would only harm our relationship at this point. Is my discomfort your sole goal at this point? Or do you hope to bore me into departure?”
Never had it been so openly combative in speech, and for a moment longer, he stood agape in the absence of an answer. The way it stared, the returning ghost of the smile – it knew how it was baiting him, and why? Why would it risk angering someone who stood in such a position of power over it?
Perhaps it still didn't think him capable of inflicting that power in any useful way. “I've told you before,” he spat in its direction before returning the full of his waning attention to the counter. The tools, the procedure that he'd planned and all but forgotten. “I intend to remove you from my child and prevent you from causing this sort of damage to any family in the future.” Again he found himself stealing glances over one shoulder, indulging in shameful curiosity. “Can you truly not feel pain?”
It was tilting her head from side to side in a noncommittal gesture, fixing the focus of void-black eyes on the reinforced silver of the ceiling. “I can,” it contradicted his assumption, “And she can, but neither of us are interested in doing so at the moment. She still appreciates the distance that I place between you and her, and I can retreat from the sensory input of my host if it becomes unpleasant. All that you're harming at this point is flesh.”
Which was the one thing that he could not risk. No matter how that beast might try to bait him, taunting him with the idea of his own incompetence. Casting doubt, with such simple cruelty, on both the scientist and father in him.
For all his resolve, he found himself still in that moment, letting the implications of its statements sink deep.
Perhaps he would be punished, or would punish himself, for showing such weakness in front of the creature. But his mind ached to contain the question, and there was no one else who would provide him with an answer.
“Tell me,” was his hollow request to the infiltrator, “Was I really so terrible to her?”
With blades and wires set aside for the time being, could it be that he'd finally managed to surprise it? Silence in response to his query, grave and held for far too long. When it did raise its voice in answer, however, it had regained much of its cold composure.
“When she lay awake at night,” it mused toward the ceiling's halo of migratory light, “The pipes carried sounds from the 'cellar'. She fell asleep to wails and sobbing, and tried to convince herself that you couldn't be responsible. But who else, when you kept that door so tightly locked?”
Then she had known. Despite all he'd done to preserve the world's innocence in her eyes, she had known.
“Her mother was dying,” he muttered, gaze fallen to the reflective tile of the floor. Mopped, polished to conceal the years of bloody exploration which had taken place in that room. “If any of my experiments could have prevented that, it would have been done.”
“And that,” it concluded without hesitation, “Is why she fears you. If it was for her sake, she knows you would unmake the world which she loves so much.”